Losing Our Heads for the Tudors: The Unquiet Pleasures of Quixotic History in The Tudors and Wolf Hall

June 23, 2015
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Post by T.J. West, Syracuse University

If we are, indeed, living in the Golden Age of Television, we can also be said to be living in the Golden Age of Tudorphilia (or at least a golden age, as the Tudors seem to bubble to the surface of popular consciousness periodically). From the runaway success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Hilary Mantel’s award-winning and critically lauded books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the exploits of Henry VIII and his six wives, as well as everyone caught in the crossfire, have re-entered the popular cultural landscape with a vengeance. We seemingly cannot get enough of the Tudors. In this essay, I would like to explore some of the aesthetic and ideological functions of two particular iterations of this obsession with England’s most (in)famous dynasty, Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010) and the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre’s Wolf Hall (2015), the latter based on Mantel’s two books on the life of Thomas Cromwell. However, rather than chiding these films as mere escapism or condemning them for distorting Tudor history (both of which may be true to some degree), I would like to argue that they can actually tell us a great deal about not only how the early modern appears in contemporary popular culture, but also why it appears and what it can tell us about how we engage with the historical past.

Of course, both The Tudors and Wolf Hall partake in a long tradition of re-imagining the Tudor court for the contemporary imagination. Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) solidified the image of Henry as a villainous glutton who devours both chicken legs and wives with the same abandon (this image is due, in no small part, to the corpulent persona assiduously cultivated by Charles Laughton). Other actors would bring different levels of complexity to the role, including Richard Burton’s brooding and Byronic persona in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Eric Bana’s gruffly and dangerously handsome interpretation in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

Cue Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who strides onto the set of The Tudors chewing scenery and shedding clothes. Exuding his signature mix of sultry sexuality and brat prince antics, Henry as Rhys-Meyers portrays Henry as less the erudite and thoughtful scholar-king and more the unruly id that constantly threatens to overwhelm the bounds of the narrative designed to contain him. His excessive and sometimes capricious sexual desires cause chaos at the personal, social, and political levels, leading to more than one ignominious death on the scaffold.


While men do certainly fall victim to Henry’s mercurial changes of temper, it is the women who truly bear the brunt of his sexual whims. While The Tudors contains many scenes of female nudity, the camera often focuses just as intently on the anguished expressions of Henry’s various consorts, particularly Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (portrayed by the immensely talented Maria Doyle Kennedy and Natalie Dormer, respectively). The first two seasons in particular draw conspicuous attention to the ways in which female bodies and sexuality serve the double-edged function of allowing access to power while also becoming their weak points, for in the world of The Tudors—as in so many other dramas that appear in the cable television world—women’s bodies remain a commodity that can be easily acquired and just as easily cast aside once their “usefulness” is expended. The many close-ups of Katherine’s face registers the emotional and mental anguish she encounters as a result of her own eclipse by Anne, and the camera also focuses on the latter’s face after her eventual fall from grace. While the series alludes to the momentous political and social changes that surround the events of Henry’s court—the annulment, after all, eventually became part of the broader Protestant Reformation—these momentous changes are mapped onto the suffering female body.

If bare flesh, sexual romps, and the anguished female body stand as the aesthetic markers of The Tudors, dim lighting, claustrophobically tight spaces and sinister whispers are those of Wolf Hall. While less explicitly concerned with the rampant sexual escapades of the Tudor dynasty, this latter drama remains just as invested in digging into the grim, dark underbelly of Tudor glamour. Death and a general precariousness of life are a consistent feature of this tightly-plotted vision of Henry’s reign. Death here can come in many forms, whether as the sweating sickness that claims the lives of Cromwell’s wife and daughters within the first episode or the despair that takes hold of Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey as he tumbles out of Henry’s orbit and into ignominy.

While Damian Lewis may not have the smokey, pin-up good likes of Rhys-Meyers, he does have his own brand of handsomeness, and it is worth noting that he actually looks like Henry was supposed to have looked, with his fiery-gold hair and fair skin. Likewise, Lewis makes for a more charismatic and likeable Henry, not falling so easily into the realm of sultry camp that always threatens the seriousness of The Tudors. However, it is precisely this charisma that makes this Henry so dangerous and that makes him serve as the perfect foil for Mark Rylance’s more dour and dark Cromwell. This Henry can turn from laughing and light-hearted to dangerously lethal in the blink of an eye, his radiant and sunny personality a mask covering a truly sinister persona just awaiting its chance to strike. As the series progresses, we see that caprice strike down several men and, while Cromwell has so far managed to rise above the bodies, anyone who knows their Tudor history knows that, inevitably, Henry’s sexual desires will once again destroy one of his most faithful councilors.

Clearly, both The Tudors and Wolf Hall remain invested in depicting the Early Modern world as dangerously and exotically other than the world that we currently inhabit. In their own ways, each of these series attempts to tame that dangerousness—to render it intelligible and contained—through the moral codes of melodrama (The Tudors) or the explanatory power of narrative and “literary” historical fiction (Wolf Hall). At the same time, however, they also contain within them a (perhaps unwitting) acknowledgment of the perilously undisciplined nature of both the past and sexuality. While both appear to have been tamed by the discourses we have designed to discipline them and to render them intelligible, there always remains something about them that slips away from us, unknowable, ungraspable, and ultimately ineffable. It is precisely these elements that make the Tudor period so unquietly pleasurable to watch, reminding us of the perilous Quixotism of history.


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